In Essays, Innovation

The fact that technology is changing the jobs landscape is nothing new, and government and social norms have learned to moderate the sharpest edges of such changes in the past…as well as adapt to them.

It’s different this time. The scope of the change is far more massive and, by design or omission, those moderation and adaptive responses are missing. We will all suffer the consequences.

Simply put, you will lose your job to a robot, whether tomorrow or sometime soon, and you’re not ready for what will come next.

Robots & Repetition

By “robot” I mean any smart technology that can sense, process, make decisions and then act on them, whether by providing answers to questions on a display screen or physically moving parts on a factory assembly line. The computers that have calculated your tax return or helped fly airplanes are robots. A car that uses tech to help it drive has a co-pilot that’s a robot. Your smart watch telling you your blood pressure is too high is a robot.

Robots are machines that can do stuff. You get the idea.

They’re particularly good at doing specific tasks by taking a set of defined variables, churning through them based on specific rules, and then relying on the results to trigger particular actions. This makes them unquestionably better than humans at doing repetitive tasks. They don’t get distracted or bored.

As robots get smarter, those variables can get bigger and more varied, and the resulting actions more expansive. They can also get better because robots can learn as they go along.

Over time, “repetitive tasks” can expand to include really complex, varied activities. Whether something is interesting or difficult doesn’t matter to a robot; it’s just a collection of inputs, commands, and outputs. Risk, uncertainty, and surprises or mistakes are outcomes of incomplete knowledge and/or imperfect reasoning. Even activities that seem totally novel or unpredictable can be rendered repetitive with enough computing.

A philosopher once mused that if we could know the position and movement of every atom in the universe, we’d “know the mind of God.”

We could never achieve that level of insight but robots are inching closer every day. There is technically no limit to what they can perceive or do. This is a fact.

Human Uniqueness

Currently, what makes robots so good at repetitive tasks makes them not good with situations in which the information is incomplete or the remit vague.

Just recognizing a stop sign on a street corner is a wildly complex event, involving endless numbers of angles at which the sign could be seen and environmental conditions that might obscure it. Prognosticating on the future direction of stocks or financial markets always seems to miss some variable or other input that makes it wrong or at least incomplete. Artists and athletes can make impromptu changes to their practices based on their mood or even do it unconsciously.

Human minds are general purpose computers. We aren’t perfect but we can handle unpredictable tasks, even if the outcomes of our actions aren’t consistently good. Much of our internal programming isn’t copyable or even visible but rather hardwired into us by millions of years of evolution. Our bodies have remembered what we learned living in environments that were always surprising.

Instinct, along with emotions and our ability to move and function in physical space without consciously thinking about it, are our proprietary code.

But there is nothing uniquely “human,” and certainly nothing better or more valuable to people driving cars, reading the financial markets, writing hit movies or even running governments. Give robots enough atoms and they, too, will know the mind of God.

The Lies We’re Told

The arguments in support of this transition are as old as they are untrue. Two stand out:

First, that we should focus on all of the enhancements in our lives and simply ignore the detrimental impacts. This is the same commercial blather that has encouraged us to eat food that tastes good but makes us unhealthy, buy things that are useful but necessitate spewing pollution when they’re made, and enjoy luxuries and conveniences produced at the expense of the well-being of others.

If stuff is cheap at the point of purchase, what’s the problem?

Second, as I noted at the start of this essay, technology has always blown up old ways of doing things but also given us new opportunities for working and living. This is another version of the “nothing to see here” argument. Also, those new opportunities can take generations to materialize (new jobs to replace the work lost to industrial looms in the 18th century didn’t appear until 50+ years later) and there’s no guarantee that said opportunities for working or living will be what anybody wants to do.

There’s nothing implicitly good or moral about technology change.

This is where those governmental and social norms are supposed to come in, only the two arguments above — along with a vociferous Greek Chorus of investors and sycophants in the media and academia — have convinced us to do little to nothing.

Look away and assume everything that happens is inevitable…and inevitably good, eventually.

The Mechanical Elephant In The Room

Talk about a huge unemployment issue that nobody is talking about. The thing is that we can’t even begin to construct a governmental response — jobs retraining, tax incentives, whatever — because we have no idea what the world will look like when most of the work we do today is automated.

So, where are the learned conclaves debating it? Why aren’t political candidates making this debate one of their priorities? Couldn’t unions embrace this phenomenon and use it to recruit and encourage members? What about theologians finding new currency in our public square by raising important questions about the nature and role of human beings in the world?

Maybe an automated world will create entirely new ways of living and new economic and governing models to support them. Great. Closing our eyes and hoping they’ll appear when we open them again is not a plan.

Granted, there’s no way we could predict what things will look like 50 years from now — remember, climate change will be another whammy that comes due by then — but we could step up and do a very human thing and come up with a working model and at least try to prepare. The data would be incomplete and our judgment flawed. But at least we wouldn’t be total victims. We could dare to dream and to prepare.

Doing that starts with admitting that you will lose your job to a robot. So will I.

And right now, none of us are ready for what will come next.

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